Tuesday, October 26, 2010

En Masque this Halloween (a word history)

If you know me, I'm sure by now you've heard what my Halloween costume is shaping up to be. But, in case you don't, or haven't, well, I'm going to be an owl. And I'm pretty darn excited about it, especially having finished my skirt and feather headdress last night.

This time of year has to be my favorite and Halloween is a large part of that. I always make my costume (except for one year in college) and I, at least in recent years, always go a little overboard. For a Tinkerbell costume one year, I spent hours hand-sewing a skirt of green tulle, faux flowers and leaves, and sequins; I even made my own wings out of tulle.

This year, the idea was to be an owl, yes, but rather a fashionista too, so instead of being overly ambitious and making my outfit, I instead spent some time shopping around until I found the perfect top and skirt, which I then sewed feathers onto (pictures to come).

Anyhow, when I first started, I knew I wanted to wear a feather headband, or headdress, or crown of some sort, which I eventually found the inspiration for here: http://bit.ly/cww41z.

And I had the idea that I wanted to wear a mask. I've always wanted to wear a mask. In fact, I've also contemplated dressing as Marie Antoinette (from Sofia Coppella's movie) just in order to wear the one made of black tulle, that she wears for the Parisian masqued ball.

Crisis, though: I'm also terribly fond of wearing feather eyelashes, and had found the most perfect pair. Surely, these, combined with a masque, would obstruct my vision. So, I landed on the idea of painting one on, but not before I spent a considerable amount of time perusing the selection of carnivale and mardia gras masques at a local costume store, and researching types of masques.

The word mask, in English, goes back to the 1530's, derived from the French 'masque,' meaning 'covering to hide or guard the face,' which itself comes from the Italian 'maschera,' from the Latin, 'masca,' meaning 'mask, specter, nightmare.' The origin preceding is unclear, though it is possible to have derived from the Arabic 'maskhara,' meaning, 'buffoon,' from 'sakhira,' 'to ridicule.'

Another possibility would be via Provencial 'mascarar,' or Catalan 'mascarar,' or Old French 'mascurer,' 'to black (the face).' The Occitan 'mascara,' meaning 'to blacken or darken,' and used today to define a common beauty product which, among other things, darkens women's eyelashes, derived from mask - 'black' - which is held from a pre-I.E. language, and the Old Occitan 'masco,' meaning, 'witch.' Interesting. (I find the connection between mascara and masco, 'witch,' intriguing, though it could be a stretch connecting the two in any significant manner).

'Masque,' the French, eventually developed to mean also, 'a masquerade, masked ball,' from the M. Fr. 'masque.' It took on a special meaning, 'amateur theatrical performance,' in 1562, when such entertainments (originally performed in masks) became popular among Elizabethan nobility.

For example, there is this, from Shakespeare's, "Love's Labors Lost,":
"Revels, dances, masques, and merry hours / Forerun fair love, strewing her way with flowers."

These days, there are 19 different definitions of the noun 'mask,' not including medical uses. And, lest we forget ceremonial masks, and their long history prior to their uses in Carnivale, or Elizabethan masquerades, if you're in Kansas City, you might visit the Nelson-Atkins, and their African Art section in the Bloch wing, or, view a sarcophogus in the Egyptian exhibition.

But my focus today is on both the revelry, and the act of hiding, both essential to our modern Halloween tradition. 

These days, "masque," can mean:

1) a covering for all or part of the face, worn to conceal one's identity.

2) a grotesque or humorous false face worn at a carnival, masquerade, etc. Ex: Halloween mask

4) anything that disgueses or conceals; disguise; pretense. His politeness is a mask for his fundamentally malicious personality.


It's curious to me that one word can have such polar meanings and uses: the lighthearted revelry, deriving from a word meaning 'buffoon,' to the darker history of concealing oneself, with the connection to the supernatural. But that in itself, also, defines Halloween.

For example, even with Venetian masks, the "Bauta" mask  and disguese (La Bauta), "comprised of the typically shining white face mask ("larva" or "volto"), a black cape or veil of silk, a cloak or mantle, and a tri-corne hat" had a dual possible etymology (http://www.venetianmasksshop.com/history.htm).

It is thought possible that the word, La Bauta, is derived from the German verb, "behuten," that means "to protect (the wearer).

But it's other possibility is quite the opposite: it could also be deriven from the Veneto-Italian, "bau-bao," a "bogeyman" type used to scare children, by adults: "Se non stai bravo viene il babau e ti porta via." - "If you do not behave, the babau will take you away." (http://www.venetianmasksshop.com/history.htm).

Perhaps what it comes down to, is that in masking and disguising ourselves, whether with a physical "darkening," or a behavioral one, it is never clear a person's true self, or intentions. These masks are often even unententional, being something as simple as not acting yourself out of nerves, or, attempting to "put your best foot forward" by emulating a perception of desired behavior. They could be malicious. Or all in good fun. And Halloween has become an exaggeration of all this. Always wanted to be a ballerina, or a superhero, as a kid? Dress up like one for Halloween.

Just like fashion, masks have the ability to either help you dress for the person you want to be, or, dress as an extended expression of your true self. Two polar possibilities, for one complex word.

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